"Macdonalds' Kiwiburger" by Squirk is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

What’s The Real Cost Of Fast Food? Climate Pollution

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It’s been a long time since I’ve eaten at a fast food roadside stop. As a nearly lifelong vegetarian, I’ve had to be conscious of seeking out complete proteins and nutritional balance in order to stay healthy. But my own experience with fast food is pretty rare here in the States, as most individuals indulge in quick and convenient fast food 1-3 times per week, contributing to an annual expenditure of $160 billion.

In our era of populism — that showy, spectacle-driven representation of the disadvantaged who are haunted by a shadowy elite class — fast food holds quite the allure as part of a pervasive, independent mindset. Fast food’s perceived daily value, enhanced by promotions and limited time specials, invites consumers to dig in and repeat.

But the instant gratification and perceived affordability of fast food comes at substantial costs. The ingredients used in fast food are often low grade and ultra-processed with salt, sugar, and unhealthy fats — all of which are detrimental to good health.

As an editorial in Nature describes, new technologies and business models are reshaping the way we produce, distribute, and consume food products. People have seen more food produced today per person than ever recorded, and fewer people are cooking at home. Fast food chains have become a popular option, but they typically use a high number of carbon-intensive ingredients, such as beef, and have high levels of energy use and packaging as well as food waste.

Moreover, and lesser known, fast food contributes mightily to climate pollution. Food production accounts for over a third of all human-made greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, making it one of the largest contributors to climate pollution globally. If the industry were to replace even small percentages of chicken and beef with plant-based alternatives, it could withdraw around 2% of total GHG emissions from the atmosphere.

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The issues with the fast food industry are well-documented in the pages of Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, and the corollary of the farm-to-table movement was outlined by Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Such information and education inspired many consumers to avoid foods that are treated with pesticides and hormones, which are bad for humans and the environment. It’s why organic food sales are rising in the United States and will likely continue to grow.

“When you add up the real costs of this food,” Schlosser told Mike Ross of the Boston Globe, “maybe that McDonald’s hamburger should be $30.” As elaboration, he said, “Fast food should be expensive, and healthy food should be inexpensive.” Ross argues that, given fast food’s costs to society — the antibiotic pathogens resulting from factory farms; the poisoning of land, animals, and people; and, the costs to the health care industry and the social safety net — elevated per plate costs of fast food wouldn’t be that high at all.

The 2023 Shifting the Menu report outlined the harmful effects of excess meat consumption on the environment. It showed how much of a difference our food choices make on the environment and animals — including when ordering fast food. Prepared for the World Animal Protection Institute for Sustainable Futures, the report outlined how the transition to a low emission, sustainable, and cruelty-free food system cannot happen without meaningful contributions from the fast food sector.

All too often, the fast food industry makes bold claims about its plans to become much more sustainable. Strides in alternative packaging. Plant based options. Improved supply chain technologies. Lab grown chicken. Drones and autonomous vehicles. Waste and water use reductions. However, the boasting seems little more than greenwashing due to the small impacts they produce.

Measures to reduce methane and other GHG emissions in the meat supply chain — which include options like anaerobic digestion of manure, soil carbon sequestration, and livestock feed inhibitors like Asparagopsis seaweed — only fractionally contribute to reducing the overall climate pollution. The real potential emerges when meat value chains work toward changing diets, “which can significantly – and quickly – reduce or eliminate global warming potential along the whole supply chain,” the report’s authors state.

Chipotle’s Cultivate Next Investment Pool

Startups that offer alternatives to fast food may be the key to improving the climate footprint across the agricultural sector. Take Chipotle Mexican Grill’s commitment to its Cultivate Next venture fund, which was increased this year by $50 million. That infusion of cash brings the fund’s total investment pool to $100 million. Introduced in 2022, Cultivate Next makes early stage investments into strategically aligned companies that further Chipotle’s mission to Cultivate a Better World and help accelerate the company’s aggressive longer term growth plans to operate 7,000 restaurants in North America.

The Cultivate Next venture fund portfolio currently features many interesting startups and tech innovators.

  • Local Line is a leading local food sourcing platform for regional food systems, serving farms, producers, food hubs, and food buyers. Chipotle’s investment has helped Local Line digitize their operations, increase their retention rate of customers, build their farm database, and expand to serve international farms in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.
  • GreenField Robotics was founded with the vision of making regenerative farming more efficient, cost-effective, and sustainable by leveraging the latest advances in AI, robotics, and sensing technologies. The company’s autonomous agricultural robots can weed crops both day and night, while reducing the need for toxic herbicides.
  • Nitricity is a company seeking to tackle greenhouse gas emissions by creating fertilizer products that are better for fields, farmers, and the environment. Funding from Cultivate Next will support the launch of its first commercial product within the next two years.
  • Vebu is a product development company that works with food industry leaders to co-create intelligent automation and technology solutions. Chipotle is collaborating with Vebu to build and scale a proprietary avocado processing cobotic (collaborative robot) prototype.
  • Hyphen is a foodservice platform designed to help restaurant owners, operators, and budding chefs move their business forward by automating kitchen operations. Chipotle is working with Hyphen to build a new digital makeline that uses intelligent automation to build bowls and salads while Chipotle employees operate the top makeline to make burritos, tacos, and quesadillas.
  • Meati Foods serves nutrient-dense whole-food products made from MushroomRoot. Chipotle is continuing to explore opportunities to bring real, fresh vegetables to the center of the plate with menu innovations.
  • Zero Acre Farms is a food company focused on healthy, sustainable oils and fats that is on a mission to end the food industry’s dependence on vegetable oils. The company has introduced a new category of healthy oils and fats made by fermentation that are more environmentally friendly.

Final Thoughts

Individual choices regarding diet itself can help to reduce the fast food industry’s emissions. However, more substantive changes are needed from the corporate sector, which requires much more than just educating consumers. It’s time for governments around the world to step up their support of plant-based diets and the startups that are reimagining the way we grow and distribute agriculture.

Reframing Big Agriculture is necessary so that its ideology becomes a mechanism to create the healthiest and safest edible products possible. Changing the way that fast food is presented to the public will require rethinking corporate practices and establishing new laws and regulations at national and international levels.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack: https://carolynfortuna.substack.com/.

Carolyn Fortuna has 1337 posts and counting. See all posts by Carolyn Fortuna